Why Watching Sicily’s Monte Erice Hill Climb Is Pure Emotional Indulgence
Photography by Armando Musotto
Writing is not my art—I tend to prefer more colors than black and white. As I’ve stressed in my other articles here, I just hope that my photos will speak for themselves, and if you’d like to read my thoughts in the spaces in between I just hope they will add something to the gallery.
Nowadays, and probably before my time I’d imagine, the newspapers and magazines that cover motorsport are too cold, too based on fact rather than passion. I like to know how much power a car has and who won the race, but really it’s not that important when it comes to vintage events like the Monte Erice hill climb in Sicily. It’s rare to find articles that describe the emotions and the less-tangible elements of these events, somehow they get lost in the retellings that become fact, fact, fact, boring fact.
I’m nostalgic, sentimental, and for everyone out there who’s also more interested in what something feels like as opposed to the cold documentary truth of it, I hope my ramblings have something to offer beyond the entry lists and finishing order. Even the smallest most local events possess some magic, and here in Sicily there are plenty to choose from. There’s a certain element of rapid danger in a hill climb event—you are basically shooting yourself up a mountain in a coffin as you race against the clock—and there is a different atmosphere than you’ll find at a circuit. In part because you’re on repurposed public roads most of the time, which allows a sense of mischief to shine through; it’s not illegal of course, but it reminds us of the times we’ve gone a bit quicker than the limit on regular roads.
Some of the climbs held in my city are not so glamorous, while others rival events like the Targa Florio in their prestigious lineups of automobiles. Today I’d like to share my experiences at a small, but beautiful event from last month.
Winning a hill climb, even a vintage one, is more a question of honor than of mere skill. One must combine the latter with the desire for the former in order to win. It’s a daring type of sport, where, if you’re really going for it, one mistimed press of the pedals can send you tumbling or into objects that don’t typically move—boulders, trees, stone walls, things you don’t want to meet at speed.
The 2018 edition of the Monte Erice hill climb took place in mid-September, when the sunsets here are still orange and the air still warm, the scenic strip of asphalt blocked off and given completely to the race. A 5.7-kilometer climb up a rough and often fog-shrouded mountain road with a steep grade is flanked by breathtaking views, and wrapped up in a long history. Mount Erice is one of the longest surviving hillclimbs in Europe after all, celebrating 60 candles on its cake since it was first officially run in 1954, and a sprightly old lady she is today. Since then, the race has grown more and more, becoming a fixture of the Italian Hillclimb Championship.
The challenge is divided into two heats that take the cars through a spectacularly mixed course with fast sections and highly technical curves, where the pilot’s experience in the car must match their knowledge of the course if they have any chance of winning. The best drivers seem to compete more with the track and their willingness to push on and against it than they do with each other. It’s a devil’s drawing, this climb, but it’s set in the elegance of the Ericino landscape, a beautiful hell. It’s not for everyone. You can drive it slow and smooth, but you won’t find tourist racers attempting flat-out runs. And indeed the race’s registry of past winners is full of talented Italians, like “Il Preside Volante” Nino Vaccarella, Edoardo Lualdi, Enrico Grimaldi (seven-time winner), the “King” Mauro Nesti, Angelo Giliberti, Eugenio Renna, and Benny Rosolia, to whom the race was dedicated. Many of these men, much like today’s hill climb champions, return to their day jobs on Monday. Otherwise normal people who transform on the hill.
But beyond the numbers and names, which are more relevant to the newsy approach I try to fight against, what matters is the feeling. The one that is created between the curves and the woods, the taming of nature that manifests in a road being built here, and then the taming of that that manifests in people driving up it as fast as they possibly can. You can see others change too, not just the weekend racers; in the faces of the local elders who remember the past, and the children beside them whose eyes are alight with brand new interest.
Erice, just like the Targa Florio, was and still is a very heartfelt party for the people who spectate. And it’s an early one, starting before sunrise on a country road in the middle of nowhere. A perfect opportunity to leave everything else behind in order to enjoy an unimpeded Sunday with those you love. Whether it’s your family or your cars, it doesn’t matter, but it’s best when it can be both. This, perhaps, is precisely in the nature of us Sicilians. It’s a randomness that I notice in all the races I go to here. We indulge in life even if we’re setting up a 6AM picnic on a dew-soaked hill..
Erice is an extraordinary place though, and such things seem more normal here as a result. A small jewel nestled on the peak of Mount San Giuliano, where myths, legends, important historical events, valuable monuments, and a series of battles not fought with weapons but with prototype race cars. And in the three days of the climb, that road, normally traveled by tourist buses that lead to the village is transformed into a riot of noise; fans shouting, engines near redline, a wild mixture of sound that echoes back onto itself over and over.
To attend is to be a part of this scream of joy produced by the people and the things they’ve come here to see, but—and this is just my advice to take or leave—one should also spend a few moments away from the action, just listening. Take some time in the woods, or find a secluded vantage point to the horizon; to hear the cars and people while looking out at other types of beauty is a special sensation, and one that I think is more transformative than watching from the standard spots. When the last car completes its ascent with an almost contemptuous enthusiasm, leaving behind the lingering scent of gasoline, you’re mind will bring you somewhere new. It’s a small slice of time, the instance between the end of the race and the true end of the weekend, that little sliver of time where you can just exist in the reverb before practical life swoops back in.